Martyn Ware of Heaven 17: 'All of a sudden it was like the dam bursting'

From The Human League to the British Electric Foundation and Heaven 17, Martyn Ware helped define Sheffield as the epicentre of electronic pop in the 1980s. Later producing multi-million selling records by the likes of Tina Turner and Terence Trent D’Arby (now known as Sananda Maitreya), he has also gone on develop parallel careers as a soundscape designer and educator.
Martyn WareMartyn Ware
Martyn Ware

Ware had, though, always resisted attempts to to get him to write a memoir – until now. Listing reasons for why this finally felt like the right moment, the 66-year-old says: “Firstly I’m an old b*****d, secondly it’s the 44th anniversary of my involvement in the music industry and next year it’s the 50th anniversary of me meeting Glen (Gregory) and starting that journey.

“That combined with the fact Covid came along and there was b***er all to do and I thought if I don’t do something creative with my time I’ll regret it. Rather than sitting there feeling sorry for myself like everybody else, I threw myself into the research process for the autobiography.

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“A lot of creative people have said the same thing: during Covid they unexpectedly found this window of opportunity. Nobody knew how long the window was going to be, but I thought I could at least start the process. So I was working on it, on and off, for 18 months.”

The book’s title, Electronically Yours, derives from a strapline that Ware created for The Human League’s first single, Being Boiled. It seems to sum up his musical manifesto in two words. “One of the main driving forces in what I believe in terms of electronic music is that there was always this cliché about it being cold and inhuman and robotic and therefore dull,” he says. “What we sought to achieve with The Human League, and the reason why we chose the name, was to humanise the capabilities of electronic music in terms of hybridising it with many different genres.

“Because you can create a sequence on a synthesiser it doesn’t always have to follow that pattern, you can put it in the service of Chicago house, for instance. I’ve just done an interview with Jam and Lewis (for his podcast) and the way they use synthesisers and created a futuristic approach to their productions was totally soul-based, based in traditional understanding of chord sequences, stuff that works from a traditional songwriting perspective.

“We wanted to make our life’s work into replacing the thought that everybody had to play guitars to create something that was emotionally engaging and to show you it was possible to do it with synthesisers.”

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Growing up in a working-class household in Sheffield, Ware would lie in bed at night with the window open listening to the sound of the drop forges that carried down the valleys from the steelworks at Attercliffe. It would lead to a lifelong fascination with industrial noises. “As a kid you just think where you live everywhere is like that,” he says. “I knew there were posh people and people in other parts of the world but my only experience of life was there, so I thought everywhere had a similar soundscape and I never considered for a moment it was unusual. It’s the same as growing up in a Cotswold village and assuming that everywhere has got beautiful birdsong going on all the time.

Cover of Martyn Ware's book, Electronically Yours: Vol 1.Cover of Martyn Ware's book, Electronically Yours: Vol 1.
Cover of Martyn Ware's book, Electronically Yours: Vol 1.

“I did appreciate it later on, when you analyse what really appeals to you. I always liked futuristic stuff and stuff that’s a bit out of the ordinary, but I’ve always liked industrial sounds. I’ve always liked industrial architecture and this all comes from growing up in Sheffield, presumably. One of my most joyous experiences was going to Kelham Island...I did an installation in the Millennium Galleries in Sheffield featuring the sounds of manufacturing in Sheffield and I did lots of field recording in different places from the really epic stuff at Forgemasters to the old steam-driven engines in Kelham Island and Little Mesters shops in the centre of town. I used to live near the centre of town in Sheffield and you just heard grinding sounds all the time, and little drop forges and silversmithing. It became something that I loved.”

Ware’s father, a steelworker, imbued him with a love of Sheffield Wednesday football club and despite living in London since the mid-80s, he remains a season ticket holder. “The first game I went to was Wednesday 5 Man United 4,” he recalls. “Hillsborough was jam-packed, United had all the biggest stars – Best, Law, Bobby Charlton – all playing. Can you imagine your first game of football? I was cursed from that moment. It’s literally all been downhill since then.”

Through listening to his older sisters’ record collections of 60s pop and Motown he acquired a love of music, which deepened when he was gifted a transistor radio. “I’ve always had a love of soul and Motown because I grew up with it, but also traditional pop songwriting,” he says. “Apart from buying all the Motown records, my sisters also bought all The Beatles’ and Stones’ and Herman’s Hermits, Anthony Newley and Adam Faith, but they also had a love of soundtrack music. So in our collection were things like South Pacific and West Side Story, Carousel was my favourite, so there was deeply ingrained in me a love for very dramatic, emotionally engaging music that’s not necessarily in a pop form.

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“My benchmark when I’m writing always has been does it touch me emotionally? If it doesn’t then I have to keep working on it.”

After passing the 11-plus exam, Ware attended King Edward VII’s Grammar School in Sheffield where he befriended Phil Oakey. Although he didn’t take to the school’s then fusty ways, it did imbue him with an interest in learning which he continues today in his role as Principal of Tileyard Education in London. “I’m really keen on self-teaching,” he says. “To be honest, I’ve learnt pretty much everything that’s of value to me since I left school. King Edward’s is a totally different school now, but I have to say the standard of teaching wasn’t very good when I was there, it was a wannabe public school, everyone was wearing gowns and mortar boards, I got caned on a regular basis for virtually nothing. Since then I’ve taught myself music, literature, I became an avid fan of science fiction in the 70s, cinema. I could have gone down any creative or artistic path but music was the one that was always my first love.

“Now I’m an honorary doctor of music at Sheffield University and I’m an honorary doctor of science at Queen Mary University of London and I’ve got a great passion for sharing whatever knowledge I have with young people. I believe that young people have a raw deal at the moment in the UK and they need as much help and encouragement as they can get and I’m determined to make that my case.

“I’m part of a lot of lobby groups, I’m a member of the Ivors Academy and historically have been a member of various groups who deal with government. My big passion at the moment is arts in education, putting the ‘A’ into STEM to make ‘STEAM’. We need to turn that oil tanker around. It’s not people messing about. Were it not for arts being part of my background through Sheffield City Council in the 70s having this thing called Meatwhistle, which was like a drama youth club, but it was really for all the arts, I wouldn’t be here now. I wouldn’t have had a career in music. It was a safe space to experiment and I think all young people need that.”

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It was at Meatwhistle where Ware met Ian Craig Marsh, with whom he began experimenting with synthesisers. Recruiting Phil Oakey as singer, they formed The Human League, making two albums, Reproduction and Travelogue, and a string of singles. Despite admirers such as David Bowie, who after attending their show at the Nashville Rooms in London declared them “the future of music”, their failure to break through commercially led to a fissure with Oakey during which Ware was sacked and Craig Marsh quit in solidarity. Forty-two years on, it remains a moot point.

“I was completely devastated,” Ware says. “I was blind-sided. The equivalent would be walking down the street and being hit with a brick from behind. There was absolutely no indication whatsoever that anything like that could have possibly happened. Myself and Ian had already had a band called The Future with Adi Newton (late of Clock DVA). It was my idea to invite Phil into the band because he was my best mate and obviously he went on to be very good, but just the simple idea that your best mate could betray you in that way was incomprehensible; it still is. I don’t really understand it. I know the cogs and bolts of what happened, as I describe in the book, and I’ve spoken to Bob Last, who was our manager at the time, since the book came out and tried to dig a bit deeper into it and he’s still a little bit vague about some things.

“It was all a fait accompli at the meeting when the split happened and I was the collateral damage, but I was determined not to be a victim so we immediately embarked on a course of world domination, which we never achieved.”

While The Human League went on to make the worldwide hit album Dare, Ware and Craig Marsh hooked up with Glen Gregory, another friend from their Meatwhistle days, and formed BEF and Heaven 17. The deal they struck with Virgin Records was unusual, allowing them to produce up to six albums a year.

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“This was in the wake of the split,” says Ware. “I went up to Edinburgh to brainstorm some ideas with Bob because he obviously felt responsible for what had happened to a certain extent, and it was his idea to do the production company. I already had Heaven 17 as a name stacked up. You have these fantasy things of if The Human League finished tomorrow what would I do, and I always liked that name from A Clockwork Orange, so I brought it out of the box and said I’d do this to Glen and Ian. It was that simple.

“Bob actually signed us to Virgin as British Electric Foundation, it was a ludicrous contract, it was like signing Motown as a sub-label to Virgin except we were going to write all the songs, produce all the acts, source all the acts, and they would fund it. Six albums a year – how the hell were they going to do that? It was crazy.

“Fortunately Heaven 17 were the first of the acts and that was successful and the baby outgrew the nest quite quickly.”

The band’s first album Penthouse and Pavement reached No14 and spent 76 weeks in the charts, but things went truly international with the release of Temptation from their second album, The Luxury Gap.

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Yet, as Ware mentions in his book, Virgin did not even want to put it out as a single “which was completely insane”, he says. “We put Let Me Go Out first, which I still think is the best song we ever wrote and nobody could believe it didn’t get in the top 40, and if you didn’t get in the top 40 you didn’t get on Top of the Pops in those days, so that is the biggest injustice of my career the fact that it didn’t do well straight out of the traps, but then that led us to let’s go straight for the jugular here, we’ve got to put Temptation out. Unbelievably Simon Draper, who was head of A&R, said ‘I’m not sure’. we said ‘What are you talking about? It’s a stone-cold hit’. It transpired they were concerned because they didn’t have Carol Kenyon (who sings on it) under contract. I said ‘Look, just do it’.

“They weren’t even happy with the mix. They sent it to another mixer in America and it came back it was completely terrible. I said ‘What are you doing? It will definitely sell’. The next thing you know I’m ringing up the head of sales in midweek asking how it’s doing and he said ‘it’s peeing out, it’s selling 20,000 copies a day, the pressing plants can’t keep up with it’. It was like A Star is Born. After all the disappointments we’d had after Fascist Groove Thang was banned and other singles we brought out didn’t quite make it and then Tina Turner, we put that out and that got to No 42, then all of a sudden it was like the dam bursting. It climbed the charts and got to No 2 and we only missed No 1 by one per cent of sales. Out of the blue came New Edition with Candy Girl, and then the following week they said ‘Don’t worry, you’ve got a chance of it being No 1 because it’s still selling strongly’. The next thing you know Spandau Ballet release True and that got to No 1 ahead of us. I’m not bitter, it’s just ironic. But you know, Vienna never got to No 1 – I always say to Midge (Ure) ‘we’re the nearly men’.”

Meanwhile BEF, whose albums featured singers such as Sandie Shaw, Billy Mackenzie, Green Gartside and Paula Yates, fulfilled Ware’s appetite for collaboration. “I think part of the reason I did all right as a producer for some famous people is although there are many things I’m not very good at, one of my talents is my quite a good psychologist, I’m quite an empathetic person, I’m quite good at bringing people into my confidence and getting the best out of them. I didn’t regard myself as a teacher because I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, but I was always happier in a collaborative framework, so BEF was a good framework for that.

“The first BEF album, Music of Quality and Distinction, was soul covers with inappropriate lead singers led to me producing Tina Turner. So if nothing else came from that, it did the trick.”

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The book ends after Heaven 17’s flurry of success in the 1980s. Ware is already planning a second volume. “I’ve probably learned more in the last 20 years than I learned in the previous 20,” he says.

Electronically Yours is published by Constable, priced £20. Martyn Ware will be in conversation at Louder Than Words festival in Manchester on November 12.

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